This blog post was written by summer 2021 intern Emma Thibodeaux-Thompson.
The theme of the next event in the Museum’s Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas Festival is street games. We’re hosting a free Zoom discussion featuring local experts and community members on June 20th (register here!). In honor of this event, and of the storied role of New York City street games, I looked at the traditions and evolutions (and some of the actual games) that have shaped the physical and cultural landscape of the Lower East Side.
Of the countless cultures and identities who have made the Lower East Side home since it became a center of immigrant life, all have shared in the tradition of play, especially on the street. The most iconic images of street games are probably familiar to non-native and native New Yorkers alike from films and other media: gangs of kids playing stickball in grainy black-and-white photographs, or picturesque footage of residents running through a jet of cold water or playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. But street games are hardly a relic of a lost New York; they still play a crucial role in bringing the residents of an area into contact and growing the bonds of community through play.
Street games in the Lower East Side played a uniquely central role in the lives of the millions of Eastern Europeans and Jews who immigrated to the city in the late nineteenth century. They didn’t invent the idea of street games (some of the popular ones, such as Johnny-on-the-pony, can be traced as far back as the Roman Empire!), but Lower East Side immigrants played a big part in forming the iconic culture of street games. Why the street? Because most neighborhoods weren’t really set up to offer places for play or relaxation or enjoyment of green space. Tenement neighborhoods were notoriously free of trees, and virtually devoid of all the playgrounds and community gardens which can often be seen today – signs were even placed at some parks to warn the city’s children to “keep off the grass.” In the early-twentieth century the Progressive movement would finally begin to advocate for the moral and the health benefits of playgrounds. They thought playgrounds would literally keep youth ‘off the streets.’ And health advocates argued that fresh air and exercise were good for kids. But even after parks and playgrounds began sprouting up in neighborhoods across the city, the popularity and convenience of many street games have remained.
Playing street games was an ideal way to occupy kids right outside their own homes after school and when the adults needed time for themselves; and most importantly, it was cheap. A ball (called a “spaldeen” by those in the know) for stickball often cost only a few cents around the turn-of-the-twentieth century, and a sawed-off broom or mop handle could serve as a bat. Boundaries and foul lines for the now-famous game were determined by the features of a given street – stoops, sidewalks, roofs, and lines drawn in chalk. And stickball is far from the only game in town. Nine-man, a game similar to volleyball and played by Chinese-American residents to this day in Seward Park, is evidence of the development of distinctly immigrant traditions among Lower East Side residents: the game has been played in tournaments since the 1930s and served as a means of connecting laborers to discuss their work and life through meeting for exercise. By the mid-nineteenth century the growing Chinese community in lower Manhattan had also popularized outdoor board games like mahjong. These past-times were ways to relax and separate briefly from chaos of the immigrant experience. They’re good for our health – mentally and/or physically – and allow us to socialize (and compete!) with friends and acquaintances.
Street games and the tradition of play and engagement they bring have remained a staple in the ever-changing Lower East Side. A walk down Canal Street nearly always reveals numerous groups of chess or mahjong players. And certainly the neighborhood’s parks remain centers for both young and old to gather and play – whether they are playing on phones, under their parents’ watchful eye, or playing the same games that immigrants first brought to the city generations ago. The persistence of games like nine-man and stickball attest to the durability of a distinct identity combined of cultural memories both in their home countries and in the United States: making something unique out of old and new. And new types of street play have cropped up. Since the 1980s, skateboarding has become a staple of street play: it’s both a form of practical transportation and a form of competitive skill and identity in the parks, concrete stretches, and empty lots that provide the ready-made ‘playing field’ the same way that roofs and manhole covers serve as bases for stickball. And the chalk that first marked out the foul lines in stickball is now a ubiquitous fixture of any Lower East Side sidewalk – evidence of hopscotch, brand-new made-up games, and even notices and prompts for the continued creativity that has fueled the area’s distinct culture. Even sports, like basketball, with more formal cultures are still technically street games. In the past few years, the Loisaida Center has organized a local basketball tournament that continues to grow in size – a testament to the importance of street games as a fixture in a changing community. And those traditions have grown across the city as well – a street in the Bronx is still closed off for stickball games. (Check out this great ESPN essay about stickball in the Bronx.)
Bringing communities together, especially out on the street where there are no entry fees or membership dues, remains an accessible and essential resource in the LES community. In the wake of a global pandemic and the vast range of disparities it has highlighted, this is more essential than ever. In the past year, congregating outside has often been the only safe way to be around others outside of one’s own household, and a consciousness of the importance of these bonds and simple daily activities has grown drastically. Perhaps most importantly, this awareness has also reminded us how much we can impact each others’ lives, and how much weight our own actions can carry. This neighborhood has a long history of activism and grassroots organization for which outdoor play is, as it always has been, a vital way of bringing people together to discuss their own struggles and triumphs. If the cafes and artistic centers of the LES are renowned for their role in progressive and independent local action, then its street games certainly deserve equal recognition for initiating that contact and those discussions in the open air and equal territory of a city street.
Do more celebrating street games with us on Sunday, June 20 at 4pm! The virtual program will feature organizers, gamers and born-and-bred New Yorkers talking about what makes New York City street games so special and vital. Register for free today!
Emma just finished her sophomore year of undergrad at Sarah Lawrence College, and will spend the next year abroad studying at the University of Leeds in England. She grew up in Springfield, IL and is studying European/American art history and history.